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Surge of donations to Black candidates tests old assumptions

Cori Bush

Cori Bush, who was dismissed as unelectable two years ago, tripled her 2018 fundraising total on her way to defeating an incumbent congressman in Missouri's Democratic primary Aug. 4.

Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Black Lives Matter activist Cori Bush's victory over Rep. Lacy Clay, a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus, captures both the pain and the promise facing a new generation of African American candidates.

Bush narrowly bested Clay, who's represented St. Louis for two decades, in this month's Democratic primary and is overwhelmingly favored to win the House seat this fall — benefiting from this year's surge of donations to outsider candidates of color, for decades among the least likely politicians to benefit from the tidal wave of cash coursing through the campaign finance system.

Bush lost to Clay by 20 points in the primary two years ago. But money started fueling her comeback in a big way this spring following the police killing of George Floyd, which sparked mass protests across the country about police violence and systemic racism — and promises by the marchers to follow-up with intensified political activism.

Bush tripled her fundraising from 2018, raising more than $200,000 this spring alone — twice Clay's receipts in April, May and June. She also benefited from close to $250,000 in outside spending, most of it from the progressive group Justice Democrats.

It was an impressive turnaround for a 44-year-old registered nurse, single mother and political novice who had been dismissed by campaign experts as unelectable. "We've been called radicals, terrorists," Bush told supporters on election night. "We've been dismissed as an impossible fringe movement. That's what they called us."

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Bush is one of a record 267 women of color running for Congress this year, half of whom are Black. Many were initially overlooked by the leaders in their respective parties but have gone out to raise substantially more than their opponents — especially in the second quarter of this year.

Especially for Black candidates, both men and women, the recent money surge reverses generations of institutional fundraising bias that's hindered their advancement, baked into both societal wealth gaps and campaign finance rules.

Money has flowed not only to individual candidates like Bush, particularly Black Democrats representing their party's progressive wing, but also to a burgeoning infrastructure of nonprofits, consulting firms and political action committees focused on voting rights and voter turnout, campaign training, fundraising and directing contributions to candidates of color.

These include Fair Fight PAC, a group associated with 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, which has raised an astonishing $26 million in this election cycle; The Collective PAC, which recently received $2 million from Michael Bloomberg for voter registration; and the racial justice group Color of Change, whose membership reportedly shot from 1.7 million to 7 million in a matter of days after Floyd's killing under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

Individual Black candidates are also raising big money. Also in Minneapolis, attorney Antone Melton-Meaux has raised more than $4 million — allowing him to spend twice as much on advertising than first-term incumbent Ilhan Omar, his opponent in a highly competitive Democratic primary on Tuesday.

In South Carolina, Jaime Harrison, the former state Democratic Party chairman, has raised $28.6 million in his challenge to GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham, who's collected $29.9 million. John James, an African American Republican challenging incumbent Democrat Gary Peters for the Senate in Michigan, has netted $20.5 million, just behind Peters's $21.6 million.

African American women, who traditionally face the biggest barriers to political fundraising, have in some cases well outraised their opponents in recent months. In central North Carolina, Democratic challenger Pat Timmons-Goodson raised more than twice incumbent Republican Rich Hudson in the second quarter, netting $845,000 to his $329,000. In the race for an open House seat on Long Island, Democrat Jackie Gordon has $1.1 million cash on hand, giving her an 11-to-1 cash advantage over Republican state Rep. Andrew Garbarino. In Ohio, Democratic challenger Desiree Tims outraised incumbent Republican Michael Turner of Dayton by more than $300,000 in the second quarter.

"They were not top tier-candidates according to the chattering class," says Glynda Carr, president and CEO of Higher Heights for America, which assists politically active Black women. "But they went into their elections and frankly out of their primaries as the races to watch."

Not that the institutional fundraising obstacles facing Black candidates have suddenly melted away. The nation's enormous racial wealth gap, whereby the average white family has roughly 10 times the net worth of the typical Black family, has only worsened since the pandemic. And plenty of African American candidates complain of being rebuffed by the Democratic establishment. These include Erica Smith, who aspired to be North Carolina's first Black female senator, but who saw $12 million lavished on Cal Cunningham, a white male, by Democratic groups on the way to winning the nomination to challenge GOP incumbent Thom Tillis.

Advocates of campaign finance reform have long argued that political money rules that steer unlimited, often-undisclosed contributions from a handful of wealthy white billionaires to unrestricted outside groups tend to freeze out candidates of color. Public financing to match low-dollar contributions tends to to diversify the candidate pool.

Black candidates still face ingrained assumptions about their electability and fundraising clout, says Steve Phillips, the founder of Democracy in Color, which advocates for more racial diversity in politics.

"The rhetoric is easy," says Phillips. "But doing the hard work to actually move the resources" is much harder. "Are we going to balance out the financial playing field here, or not?"

He noted that a Bay Area fundraiser scheduled for Tuesday, which will divvy receipts between several Democratic Senate candidates, showcased the white man running for Senate in Georgia — Democrat John Ossoff, who will face Republican incumbent David Perdue this fall — but not the Black candidate, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is running the same day in an all-candidate special election for the state's other Senate seat.

"It's reflective of the blinders that white gatekeepers have," says Phillips. Still, he noted that a recent philanthropic outpouring will steer literally hundreds of millions to groups run by people of color.

The Open Society Foundations, run by philanthropist George Soros, has announced $220 million in grants to groups advancing racial justice and civic engagement. Novelist and philanthropist Mackenzie Scott, previously married to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has given $587 million to racial equity groups.

"That's both the promise and the challenge," says Phillips. "Those contributions do transform the landscape. But is the rest of the donor universe going to follow suit?"

Carney is a contributing writer.

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